Detaining the Poor:
How money bail perpetuates an endless cycle of poverty and jail time
In addition to the 1.6 million people incarcerated in federal and state prisons, there are 646,000 people locked up in more than 3,000 local jails throughout the U.S. Seventy percent of these people in local jails are being held pretrial— meaning they have not yet been convicted of a crime and are legally presumed innocent. One reason that the unconvicted population in the U.S. is so large is because our country largely has a system of money bail, in which theconstitutional principle of innocent until proven guilty only really applies to the well off. With money bail, a defendant is required to pay a certain amount of money as a pledged guarantee he will attend future court hearings. If he is unable to come up with the money either personally or through a commercial bail bondsman, he can be incarcerated from his arrest until his case is resolved or dismissed in court.
Figure 1. Since the 1980s, there has been a significant, nationwide move away from courts allowing non-financial forms of pretrial release (such as release on own recognizance) to money bail, although this does vary substantially depending on jurisdiction. This chart illustrates the possible paths from arrest to pretrial detention. Almost all defendants will have the opportunity to be released pretrial if they meet certain conditions, and only a very small number of defendants will be denied a bail bond, mainly because a court finds that individual to be dangerous or a flight risk. The only national data on pretrial detention that we are aware of comes from the Bureau of Justice Statistics’ Felony Defendants in Large Urban Counties series. Nationally, in 2009, 34% of defendants were detained pretrial for the inability to post money bail. This report focuses on this important population: those who are detained pretrial because they could not afford money bail....